Sister Nivedita – A Great Visionary in the Spread of Women's Education in India
Swami Vivekananda dreamt of empowering the women of India. To him, a civilization would remain crippled, if women were not involved in its march towards progress. He said that a bird cannot fly 'only on one wing'.
Nivedita's meeting with Swami Vivekananda in London in 1895, marked the beginning of a new history. Swamiji found in her 'a real lioness' who could work for India, especially for women. The great vision of Swamiji inspired Miss Noble to set off for a long journey to an unknown land. She landed in Calcutta on 28th January 1898. Her self-sacrificing services for the next few years in her adopted homeland earned her the epithet of 'Lok Mata'. She was rechristened as was rechristened as 'Nivedita', the 'dedicated soul.'
Nivedita made vigorous efforts to know India, her 'Karmabhumi', and be an Indian to the core. She was a great upholder of Indian values and traditions. She strongly believed that people of the country should receive 'true education' or 'national education' to become sons and daughters of Bharatvarsha and not 'poor copies of Europe.' For the upliftment of Indian women, Nivedita never wanted to impose western values and way of life on them. She believed India being 'a land of great women', should not discard their old-time grace and sweetness, the gentleness and piety in favour of western information and social aggressiveness. Nivedita was very clear in her mind that western education should not be imposed on Indian women. Shortly after her arrival in India, she was asked by Rabindranath Tagore to take charge of his younger daughter's education through English medium. But Nivedita declined and was of the view that there was no good 'in imposing foreign ideals and standards' on Indian women and she had not come to teach Indian women the English language and culture.
Pioneer with a Difference
Nivedita initiated a nationalistic education for Indian girls. She made a humble beginning on 13th November in 1898, on Kali Puja day with a few girls on the roll. She had to literally move from door to door to beg for students from the orthodox neighbourhood. She had the grand vision of her school producing modern day Maitreyis and Gargis. Running the school and meeting its day-to-day expenses were not an easy task. Nivedita was forced to close the school soon due to acute financial hardship and head for the West with Swamiji on lecture tour to garner financial support. She embarked on 20th June, 1899. Her endurance during acute deprivation and sacrifice of basic needs, made Rabindranath Tagore say, "It was not out of donations, not even from the surplus that Nivedita met the expenses of the school. It was out and out part of sharing her food. This is the truth."
In February 1902, Nivedita re-opened her school. She chose Saraswati puja day, an important day in the calendar of festivities, especially for students. From the then onwards, celebration of Saraswati puja became an annual event in the school. Initially, the girls had some inhibitions about Sister's participation in the puja but her enthusiasm and keenness broke all barriers down. Nivedita's experience of teaching in the West and her deep respect for India and its age-old values, helped her find a unique way of teaching suited to the Indian situation. She introduced the Kindergarten system in which lessons were imparted in the mode of play. She would receive each of them with folded hands. They were her 'little goddesses'.
Nivedita would teach her students conventional subjects such as, Bengali, English, Arithmetic, Geography and History and also expose them to sundry vocational work such as, clay-modelling, mat weaving, paper-cutting, sewing and other handicarfts. Since a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, as the dictum goes, physical exercises and the basic rules of hygiene were also part of the curricula in her school. Nivedita was fully aware of the contemporary realities in Hindu society and used to take special care of Hindu widows as her students. On many occasions, she would find them reaching school without food. Nivedita would feed them first. She envisioned a greater role for them. Her plan was that they should be groomed to work as 'educational missionaries'. She had the foresight of making them torch-bearers to touch the lives of many with light of education. Her exhortations are as inspiring as they are insightful. She said, "Today our country is in a sore plight." And in a special manner she calls on her daughters at the moment to come forward, as those in the ages before, to aid her with a great shraddha. "How shall this be done?" - we are all asking. In the first place let Hindu mothers renew in their sons the thirst for Brahmacharya without which our nation is short of her ancient strength. No country in the world has an ideal of the student's life so high as in this country and if it be allowed to die out of India, where shall the world look to restore it? In Brahmacharya is the secret of all strength, all greatness. Let every mother determine that her sons shall be great!"
Fanning the Sparks of Nationalistic Fervour
The school activities were seeped in nationalistic fervour. When singing 'Vande Mataram' was banned in the country, Nivedita made it the daily opening prayer song in her school. Nivedita wanted her school to be the nucleus of the 'grand educational movement' and her students to imbibe the spirit of nationalism. The British Government's freeing some political prisoners from the Andaman jail was an occasion to celebrate in her school. She used to take senior students to the lectures of great leaders like Surendra Nath Bannerjee.
The colonial influence on students used to disturb Nivedita immensely. Nivedita was distraught when her students replied that the queen of India was Queen Victoria. She was keen to instill a sense of pride about vernacular languages in her students. One day when a student while drawing a 'line' in Bengali Nivedita was unhappy. Her joy knew no bound when one of the girls in the class could tell her that 'line' is 'rekha' in Bengali.
Nivedita laid the foundation of adult education and vocational training in the country. She opened a Women's section on 2nd November, 1903 for the local women with a flexible timing in the afternoon when the women would be free from household work. They were taught the basics of reading and writing, of studying the scriptures and various types of handiwork. The teaching of handicarfts was to enable them to earn a living even while being at home. She had the larger picture in mind on the revival of the old Indian industries with her students contributing to it.
Holding back students in school in the face of severe social pressure was a big challenge to Nivedita. Absenteeism was rampant and child marriages were the order of the day. To cope with such a frustrating experience, she would visit the houses of absent girls and plead with their guardians. The return of one of her students to the school, Giribala Ghosh, a twenty-two year old widow, speaks volume about Nivedita's genuineness to adopt and adhere to the tenets of Indian tradition and culture while educating women and girls. Giribala was keen to continue her studies but criticism from neighbours stopped her from coming to school. But it so happened one day that Giribala's grandmother while passing by the school, heard students of the school singing Sanskrit verses in chorus, which impressed her very much and she made Giribala rejoin the school.
Empowering Women along National Lines
Nivedita was fascinated with the great Indian epics and Indian history. To her, the most heroic character in the Mahabharata, was Gandhari, because of her incomparable devotion to her husband and her sense of righteousness. She used to take her students through the pages of Indian history and talk about great women legends. She writes, "In all lands holiness and strength are treasures which the race places in the hands of woman to preserve, rather than in those of man. A few men here and there become great teachers, but most have to spend their days in toil for the wining of the bread. It is in the home that these renew their inspiration and their faith and insight, and the greatness of the home lies in the tapasya of women."
The plight of Indian women in the general was Nivedita's prime concern. She was never confined to school hours or the students of her school. In the evening hours, Nivedita would invite the local women and hold meetings, organise recitation from the Chandi, the puranas and other scriptures. Nivedita, and her companion Sister Christine, would sit on one side of the courtyard with the small girls and the women behind a screen. Nivedita stood apart from contemporary Christain Missionaries. Her unique initiatives in the field of adult education, vocational training, and education with nationalistic fervour had made her a pioneer in the area of women's empowerment. Her deep respect for India and the greatness of Indian women made her acceptable to one and all.
…. By Archana Dutta. courtesy Samvit